Updated: Mar 11, 2021
By Palwasha A.
Intergenerational trauma is not what I initially thought it was when I first started researching this piece. I came across a beautiful Ted Talk by Tabitha Mpamira-Kaguri:
“We all carry batons we didn’t ask for- but we have not stopped to wonder, what are we carrying? Generations before maybe have passed on batons of hate for those who don’t look like you. Political affiliation that you never questioned- how does this affect your community? There’s a lot of silence around what we take for granted.”
Can untreated, unprocessed intergenerational trauma shape a community’s culture? In this piece we consider just that - how individual reactions to significant traumatic events can, over time, shape patterns of behaviour that are followed down through the generations, resulting in the creation of culture.
What else is culture but the behaviours that we pass on?
Just a definition.
Let’s talk about a theory that goes a long way toward explaining so many of our familial and societal behaviours; ones that have been accepted for so long that they don’t spark confusion until we start to examine them. Intergenerational trauma is a difficult theory to break down but an important one to understand.
It refers to the “residual impact of a traumatic event that is transmitted across generations through storytelling and behavioural and relational patterns”.
There are three types:
Psychological Trauma - Significant incidents and out-of-the-norm events that happen in an individual’s life, so overwhelming that they often become paralysed, rather than triggering a flight-or-fight response. Examples of this kind of trauma include sexual abuse, or the suicide of a loved one. May be associated with self-blame, shame, embarrassment or self-hatred.
Mass Trauma - Usually life-threatening traumatic events experienced by a large number of people simultaneously. Examples of this may include natural disasters, nuclear events, terrorism and hostage situations. May lead to an increase in wariness and fear of area and circumstances trauma occurred in.
Collective social trauma - Man-made events, usually at the hands of the state or powerful groups. Often classed as activities carried out over a long period of time by one group to affect the functioning of another (usually smaller) group overtime, to decrease their social influence. Examples of this are colonisation, war, genocide, famine - events that disrupt social patterns and rituals previously practised. It may deprive a collective group of people of their control over their communities and way of life.
An example close to home.
The examples of intergenerational trauma are many and varied, and each deserve their own breakdowns and analysis, but in this piece we will mostly be focusing on the writer’s experiences within her own Afghan community in Sydney and similar migrant communities. In saying this, we cannot talk about intergenerational trauma without addressing one of the most important and well-chronicled instances of it in our own country, of the devastation of colonial violence on Aboriginal Australian communities.
This trauma was so disruptive to their way of life previous to the invasion (including the devastating carry-on effects of such horrific sustained processes as the Stolen Generation) that its effects are still being felt now by their descendants. This is why it’s important to understand this concept, listen to their stories and realise that their ongoing pain cannot be brushed off as “it’s time to move on already”. It is so important for policies and reforms to be put in place with Aboriginal Australians at the forefront to even attempt to remedy the generations of trauma caused.
How it’s passed down.
When unprocessed trauma gets passed down unwittingly disguised as cultural beliefs and norms, it often ingrains itself into the continued fabric of our culture. This is why it’s so important to treat. There are a few main models that describe how trauma is passed down.
- Children whose parents have repressed and unresolved trauma unconsciously absorb it.
- Through interaction with family dynamics and communication.
- Through cultural beliefs and norms.
My community is largely made up of people who have escaped four decades of war, with variations in what type of trauma they endured. This collective experience of the same devastating events over such a long period of time, without the necessary healing effect of such life-saving measures as therapy and medication, has meant that clear patterns can be seen in the way people parent, relate to one another and even the values we now hold dear.
The generations of war have meant a ‘survive’ rather than ‘thrive’ style of parenting has endured, unchecked. Many of us have accepted since youth that if we were to step out of line in certain areas, like the education path that would be most desired, that the response from our parents and family would be catastrophic. In certain communities that have historically experienced poverty or prolonged instability, there is a constant need to ensure children’s safety and security, at whatever cost. Securing a child’s education means giving them the tools to survive in the world that they know.
What Can We Do?
There are steps we can collectively take to ensure that the generational cycle of trauma in our families and communities ends with us.
The first step is always to pinpoint and acknowledge the problem. Identifying the behaviours we practice that might be the result of past trauma and understand that these exist within a complex context that has not been addressed in the way that it needed to be and still needs to be.
Though we understand that therapy is not accessible to all, one of the best ways to address inherited trauma is to begin to attend therapy with the goal of identifying behaviours and learning to correct these on an individual level. If one person takes their healing in their own hands and does the work to overcome their detrimental habits and replace them with healthy new ones, this benefits the entirety of the family. This can then make it easier to practice open and honest communication to overcome the gaps between family members created by years of silencing, miscommunications and past traumas that were never addressed.
Commit to the process of healing. Most often, it is confusing, hurtful and messy. It’s a process wherein people try to replace their old harmful habits and behaviours with new healthy ones, and this “cleaning out” can result in even more fighting, clashes and inconsistency for a long time. In her TED Talk, Brandy Wells gives the example of spurs of harsh discipline and then complete lack of boundaries with parents trying to unlearn their harmful inherited trauma as an example of the messiness of healing, but it's a necessary step in eradicating certain potentially self-preserving behaviours that no longer have a place.
We cannot expect to burden ourselves with the responsibility to “fix” decades of trauma in the systems and people around us. Doing the work to end intergenerational trauma with us is how we ensure that it doesn’t become woven into the fabric of our society and affect generations to come.
“Every woman who heals herself, heals her children’s children.” - Liezel Graham
Lead Editor: Tahmina R.
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